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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the SANCO 3rd National Conference, Krugersdorp, 20 April 2001

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the SANCO 3rd National Conference

20 April 2001, Krugersdorp

Dear Comrades

On behalf of our two million members, I bring revolutionary greetings to the leadership of SANCO, all delegates and guests.

Before I address the gist let us call upon all SANCO members to join us in our celebration of conquering the powerful Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association by forcing them to withdraw the case against our government. Yesterday represents a turning poin t in the history of health system of our country. We therefore call upon our government to utilise this space. We must move in speed to order cheaper medicines elsewhere as we develop a comprehensive treatment strategy that will defeat the scourge of HIV/ AIDS.

This, the third National Conference of SANCO, is an extremely important event that will definitely find itself in the history book of our revolution when we account to the next generations. As you begin this conference, guided by the reality that SANCO is at the cross roads, the delegates gathered here should treasure the honour bestowed on them by our people who delegated them to decide the future and the role a civic movement should play. In certain quarters of our country there may be people waiting wit h champagne to celebrate the fall of this giant - SANCO. COSATU is convinced that they shall be disappointed.

COSATU has taken a keen role in the August conference. This conference’s decisions will have a direct impact on COSATU as a key people’s organ.

SANCO has played a critical role in ensuring that we reach this point of our common destiny. You landed the final blow to the apartheid monster. As a civil movement you still have a role to play in ensuring that our democracy is not just a narrow bourgeoi s one, but a vibrant democracy that is fully participative.

If you disappear into the dustbin of history, the National Democratic Revolution would have been dealt a lethal blow. Key to this is to build a people-centred and people-driven transformation where mass formations play a critical role as the voice of our p eople.

At stake in this conference is whether our democracy will end up looking more like the type of democracy practiced in the Soviet Union, where the politburo, allegedly on behalf of the masses usurped all power to itself, distributed patronage to boot-licker s, created an army of praise-singers whilst labelling anybody who is not licking the boot of the General Secretary as an ultra left or counter revolutionary who must be sought and destroyed.

Representative people’s organisations of all kinds -and above all mass-based groups like the unions and civics - are central to people’s power. Our national constitution commits us to participatory democracy.

That is only possible where the people themselves organise to express their unity and interests, so that they can participate meaningfully in the decisions that shape their lives.

The people’s organisations are particularly critical in our country, where power was so long wielded by a tiny minority. That ruling class still holds many of the levers of power, above all in the economy, but also in the state bureaucracy and the security forces. For this reason, it remains crucial for the majority of our people, who are working class, poor, and mostly black, to unite to protect their hard-won rights and to fight for economic and social policies that will ensure equality and development. T he civics has a central role to play in these struggles.

Unlike other immature liberation struggles, ours has always been distinct in that whilst it was a struggle for right to vote and return of dignity, it was at the same time a struggle for local democracy, decent houses, dynamic and compulsory education, acc essible electricity, clean running water, equality between men and women, etc. Our struggle was never limited to the formal right to vote. Rather, we always demanded a transformation of our lives; overcoming deprivation and oppression at all levels. I am sure you correctly understand your role and with this rich experience you cannot afford to leave these tasks to other forces.

With the end of apartheid, however, the role of civics has come under the spotlight. In some cases, confusion and tension have arisen because of our collective failure to anticipate the new conditions that all of us would have to operate under in condition s of democracy and the legality of the ANC and SACP. Unlike before 1990, where SANCO led any community struggle for access to services, it suddenly became unclear who should lead these struggles, with ANC branches and later local government in place also t aking the same issues traditionally taken up by SANCO branches.

Debates, even conflict, have emerged over who can or should represent our communities, take decisions on the allocation of resources and location of infrastructure, and give our people a voice in government. At a practical level: if a pipe bursts in your s treet, do you go to your ANC branch, your civic, or your councillor?

This tension reflects a broader problem that confronted all our organisations with the breakthrough in 1994. With the transition to democracy, all the organisations of the democratic movement had to assume new roles. We all had to redefine our aims and re- examine our commitments and vision, and on that basis modify our structures and activities.

To meet these challenges, COSATU established the September Commission. It examined our functions, priorities, strengths and weaknesses, and discussed how we need to transform ourselves given the new environment. This in-depth process of discussion, debate and research gave us strategic guides for our work in a democratic South Africa. SANCO did not embark on a focused discussion on how best to reposition itself in the light of the completely new conditions. Let me warn you that it is not an easy task. The m istake you must not commit is to think that this conference will offer all solutions to our challenges.

SANCO, just like COSATU, faces a particular challenge: we must represent all our members, and not choose them based primarily on their political allegiance. We must ensure that they manage the contradictions that can arise from diverse membership. Through open debates and discussion as well as intensive educational work, we must ensure that we arrive at common positions that will take our country forward. Broad civil movements, like yourselves and COSATU, can only survive if all voices have space for expre ssion. Otherwise we risk becoming a hollow shell, an extension of government that cannot mobilise members to defend themselves, their class and their communities. Don't be ashamed or apologetic to retain your autonomy with pride and confidence.

In these difficult conditions, COSATU has managed increasingly to define its own profile while maintaining its commitment to progressive ideals and, by extension, to the unity of the democratic movement, including the Alliance with the ANC, SACP and SANCO. We have consistently identified and opposed policy initiatives that will harm our members, without undermining our government or changing our basic political direction. At the same time, we have been able to put forward a range of constructive proposals o n a variety of issues.

We feel that the ANC continues to represent the broadest alliance of progressive forces. We must still unite our people in defence of our gains and make new ones. Divisions will only open the door to more reactionary forces, which can still reverse many of the gains we have already made.

Like COSATU, SANCO is not designed to be a political party. That is not its main function. Rather, it must unite all residents to pursue their common interests. But it is critical that this role be clearly defined.

Otherwise, confusion and divisions may undermine your strength and influence.

This does not mean that we must accept everything that the government does. As we have argued repeatedly, we must rather fight for more participatory processes at all levels of government, and to strengthen the ANC ’s power over the state machinery and the Executive in government.

COSATU has demonstrated time and again that it is not afraid to disagree with the government on specific strategies and policies. But those debates do not take away from our basic agreement on the need for reconstruction and development.

We think it is critical, however, to reflect on how we manage political disagreements. We need to find a balance. We cannot afford destructive criticism that plays into the hands of those who oppose real democracy and equality. But neither can we let fears of disagreement undermine our independence and the right to raise concerns of members, class and communities.

We need to define our central aims and let that guide our actions - and when we need to use power, as with our general strike in the Jobs and Poverty Campaign last year, we must be decisive and united.

In short, comrades, this conference must take SANCO forward into the new millennium by defining its role and ensuring that all your members can unite behind that vision. We are sure that you will chart a course that will strengthen the democratic movement in our country. You cannot afford to leave us before the aspirations of our people and tasks of the National Democratic Revolution are attained.

Wishing your conference every success!